Why is lying so prevalent in politics?
In the US, an important factor is the way presidential candidates are selected. In primaries, most states only permit voting by registered party supporters, a minority of voters. Despite this fact primaries are very public campaigns garnering significant publicity and with high costs, so an energised minority of voters gets a disproportionate say in electing the candidate. In a purely internal party race, other factors like appeal to the broader population would play a bigger role. Among the Republicans, a very narrow range of views appealing to a small but stridently activist group of voters has become dominant because it does not take a lot of votes to swing a primary, compared with a general election. That puts candidates in a position where they have to appeal to this very narrow base, after a previous political history appealing to a much wider base. Then, once they get to the real election, they have to unwind some of their more extreme positions – or avoid talking about them.
This phenomenon is particularly acute in the Republicans, but all politicians to some extent suffer the need to appeal to different constituencies at different times.
But do they really need to be dishonest? Telling it like it is may sometimes hurt, but a person who does that is someone you can trust. And in a world of dishonesty, trust has high value.
Let’s personalise the issue to put it into perspective. This is a made-up story, but based on life as I’ve observed it:
Sue does something she knows will hurt a person she cares about, James, so she tries to cover it up, not thinking through that the cover story is a lot worse than the thing being hidden. James finds the story not only hurtful but illogical and tries to make sense of it. The more he tries to find out what really happened, the more she spins out the original lie, so obsessed with the fear that the truth will hurt him that she doesn’t see that the cover story is far worse. Eventually she fears him so much, she refuses to talk to him: still not realising that simply admitting to the original mistake would be much easier for him to accept than her weird behaviour. Suddenly she wakes up and realises what she’s done. One phone call including the word “sorry” and full disclosure goes a long way to repairing the damage. Trust isn’t rebuilt overnight, but James is willing to give it a try.Take this back now to the Republicans. Romney as governor of Massachusetts enacted a health plan much like Obama’s, and had positions considered “liberal” in the US. Now he expects voters to believe he’s actually a creature of the hard right, who don’t accept abortions even in cases of rape, and consider any government intervention in society to be “socialism”.
Like Sue in my story, I wonder if Romney realises his lies are spinning him away from people who used to support him – and destroying trust in an increasingly irretrievable way. He may win a few votes on the hard right, and maybe this is what it takes to win nomination as a Republican candidate. But is it worth it to live out your life as a lie, without anyone you can trust, and with no one trusting you? And unlike my mythical James, the broader public is less forgiving. If you are known to be a liar, it’s very hard to shake that reputation.